One of the greatest mysteries of human psychology is social bonding. Whether it’s a close friend or your life-long partner, we often times feel like our connection with loved ones goes beyond skin deep. Well it turns out our brain thinks the same way too.
The Aww! Factor
A recent study from University of Virginia reveals that our brain doesn’t merely see our loved ones as “close,” but actually perceives them as the direct extension of ourselves.
“Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we monitored statistical associations between brain activations…These results suggest that one of the defining features of human social bonding may be increasing levels of overlap between neural representations of self and other.”  fMRI is basically an MRI brain scan with pretty colors allowing researchers to determine the effects of particular tasks and stimuli on brain activation.
The Ouch! Factor
How did they measure these “brain activations?” The laboratory favorite, electrical shocks. Don’t get alarmed, unlike the “Milgram Experiment,” no one actually got shocked in this study. The participant’s brain activations were measured based on their fMRI reactions to a “threat” of electrical shock.
The experimenters then proceeded to measure participant fMRI reactions when they threaten to shock a complete stranger and when then threaten to shock a friend. There was no brain activation in relation to a complete stranger, however, the brain activation was more than expected when they threatened to shock a friend. The scans showed remarkable similarity to when the participant was threatened.
You are a part of me
Deriving from the results of the experiment, our brains don’t see much differences between harm to ourselves and harm to our friends, so watching our loved ones experience pain is almost like experiencing the pain itself – neurologically speaking. Similarly, seeing our loved ones experience relief or comfort is almost the same as comforting ourselves. This can even apply to our “past self.”
Looking at humanitarian behavior, often times individuals choose to help people who are in a similarly traumatic conditions as they were. The findings in this study implies that the motivation behind such humanitarian and altruistic behavior may be an attempt to comfort one’s own self. However, theory or not, humanitarian and altruistic behavior is often times seen as the best possible coping mechanism to a traumatic experience.
It also important to note that the participants in the study were matched up with an opposite-gendered friend meaning if the participant was male then the friend was a female. Considering the fact that 14 of the 25 participants in the study were males, it is somewhat possible that the primal male instinct to protect women was what triggered such strong reactions from the brain.
Our brain governs everything we feel, everything we think and everything we do. The findings in this study suggest that the motivation behind our empathy toward our friends and loved ones is due to the fact that our brain sees them as being part of ourselves.
In essence making friends means you are literally extending yourself out to other people. It exposes us to more pain, but at the same time it lets us experience more of what life has to give. If anything, its renders making new friends are lot more meaningful – neurologically speaking.
1. Beckes, Lanes, James Coan, and Karen Hasselmo. “Familiarity Promotes the Blurring of Self and Other in the Neural Representation of Threat.” Oxford Journals. Oxford University Press, 3 May. 2012. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.